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Sheldon Meyer: 1926-2006
Sheldon Meyer

Born: 1926
Died: October 2006

Extraordinary Editor

by W. Royal Stokes
Copyright © 2007 W. Royal Stokes

"I feel that a good deal of what is unique and important in American culture has an African-American origin," Sheldon Meyer informed me when I interviewed him in June 1999 for a Down Beat profile. Sheldon, a 1949 Princeton graduate — summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa — in history and American civilization, came to Oxford University Press in 1956 with a deep interest in American history and culture and a passion for jazz. It wasn't long before he was adding books on African-American history to Oxford's list, "which of course came out of my jazz interest and my own strong feelings on civil rights issues."

Sheldon, Editor Emeritus of Oxford University Press and a consulting editor for Oxford from his retirement in 1997 until 2005, died on October 9, 2006. He was the 1999 Down Beat Lifetime Achievement Award recipient and was inducted onto the prestigious A Team of major supporters of jazz at the Jazz Journalists Association's 2006 JJA Jazz Awards.

Jazz literature has burgeoned in the past four decades, displaying a level of scholarship and a depth of insight that few books on jazz had earlier attained. On both counts Sheldon Meyer, who was Vice-President of Editorial, Oxford University Press, is at the head of the column of those who helped bring about this phenomenon.

Not only can it be said that Oxford University Press has, of all publishing houses, by far the largest catalogue of books on jazz and related idioms, it can be affirmed as well that this achievement has principally been the accomplishment of one individual, Sheldon Meyer, who persisted until he had established his jazz list as a major source of pride to the world's oldest publishing house, a firm that keeps in print the corpus of Greek and Latin literature, periodically revises the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary, and imprints its seal on academic tomes in dozens of disciplines.

"For more than three decades now," said the late Mark Tucker to me in 1999, "Sheldon has been the head curator of the jazz literary wing in American publishing. He believes deeply that jazz is an important artistic tradition deserving a serious literature. In a way, Sheldon is the Louis Armstrong figure in the world of jazz publishing — someone whose impact has been so broad and pervasive that it's impossible to take its full measure."

"I can say dispassionately that in the entire history of the music, there has never been, in any country, so diverse and durable a body of essential companions to the music as his list," opined Nat Hentoff in his JazzTimes column. "All this, since 1956, by a single editor in one publishing house." Over the course of his half-century career, Meyer edited hundreds of books for Oxford. He handled such authors as literary critic Edmund Wilson, historians James M. McPhearson, C. Vann Woodward, and Samuel Eliot Morison, and biographer Louis R. Harlan, in the process making the British-based Oxford University Press the leading publisher of books on American history.

"It is doubtful that any other editor in the long history of publishing in the United States has had so large an impact on the field as has Sheldon Meyer on American studies, or so distinguished an array of authors," wrote historian William Leuchtenburg, who dedicated his book about the FDR court, The Supreme Court Reborn, to Meyer.

Sheldon Meyer's New York Times obituary pointed out that he was "a distinguished editor of nonfiction books who was almost single-handedly responsible for the Americanization of Oxford University Press." Six of Sheldon's titles won Pulitzer Prizes and 17 were awarded the Bancroft Prize, which is given for distinguished historical scholarship.

Also, Oxford University Press received the Carey-Thomas Award for "creative publishing" for its list in jazz and popular music and in 1997 it was applauded for having brought out more ASCAP prize books than any other publisher. In 1999 the National Book Critics Circle gave its award in criticism to Gary Giddins for his Visions of Jazz,one of six volumes of Giddins that Meyer edited. "That's the first time a jazz book has received a major award from one of the various prize committees," Meyer pointed out to me. The Association of American University Presses honored Meyer with its Constituency Award "in appreciation of outstanding service to the University Press Community," and in 1993 Oxford University bestowed on him an Honorary Master of Arts. Soon after Meyer retired in 1997 a group of his history authors put together a Festschrift — German for "festival writings" — in honor of their mentor. It was published by Oxford with the title American Places and is believed to be the first Festschrift dedicated to an editor at a publishing house.

"As a pre-teenager I got into jazz, because it was the Swing Era, and I got into Benny Goodman, of course," recalled Meyer, who grew up in Geneva, Illinois, "and I bought original 78s of all those great Ellington sides. Then by the mid- '40s I was really into bop. The first thing I heard were the Coleman Hawkins/Dizzy Gillespie sides and then I bought all the Bird and Diz sides."

When Meyer arrived at Oxford in 1956 the firm had that very year just published its first jazz book, Marshall Stearns' The Story of Jazz. "Marshall wrote about everything from ragtime to '50s jazz," he said. It was the first history of jazz that avoided all the stupid feuds of the '40s. And I think that's one of the reasons why it was such a big success." Although Meyer clarified that he had "absolutely nothing to do" with the book, its success opened up doors for him. The first was at Oxford, for when he eventually began "bringing up jazz titles, people didn't really object." The next was when Stearns invited him to join a panel discussion at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. It was there that he met the late Martin Williams.

"Martin was really my key connection in getting into the jazz world and meeting jazz writers," affirmed Meyer. "In the end, we published five of his books." Williams opened more doors for him, referring him to "quite a few other writers," including Gunther Schuller and Gary Giddins.

"By the time Gunther's Early Jazz was published in the '60s we had begun to do a few jazz books. With Martin's great classic The Jazz Tradition in 1970, the dam broke and, by the '80s, my jazz list was the Oxford list from America that was doing best for them, so they were very positive about it in England, and I think now really quite proud of it. Whenever I have met anybody from the UK side, they always ask about the list. So what started as something which was almost like a pariah movement has become very, very much part of the whole Oxford University Press publishing program."

It is generally recognized that Sheldon converted the staid Oxford University Press into a major publisher not only of books on aspects of popular culture such as jazz, the Broadway musical, and sports, but hitherto slighted, even ignored, areas of American history such as that of African Americans and women. Under Meyer's guidance Oxford became, in a word, a very hip house.

"All the areas of jazz should certainly get their due," insists Meyer, pointing out that his list begins with ragtime and comes up to the present. "We've just now published a book by Howard Mandel called Future Jazz, which is about the '70s to '90s. So I've tried to have a big tent and cover it all." The many authors that Meyer introduced to Oxford, and then edited the books of, include such major writers on jazz, pre-60s popular song, the Broadway musical, and African-American culture as Whitney Balliett, Samuel A. Floyd, Jr., Ira Gitler, Frank Driggs, Gene Lees, Richard Sudhalter, Alec Wilder, Giddins, and Mandel. Other jazz authors whom he handled include Ted Gioia, Mark Tucker, Leslie Gourse, James Lincoln Collier, David Rosenthal, Bill Kirchner, Thomas Owens, Brian Priestly, Bob Thiele, and Mel Torme.

Lees, four of whose books Meyer edited, asked by me in 1999 to assess Meyer, enthused, "Sheldon is not only an incredible scholar of general world history, he is a man with a remarkable knowledge of jazz. He is patient with writers and paternal without being patronizing. He's the greatest editor I've ever worked with. Finally, he is something that, alas, is too rare: a gentleman."

Oxford University Press published W. Royal Stokes' 1991 The Jazz Scene, Living the Jazz Life and Growing the Jazz Life, all edited by Sheldon Meyer.

W. Royal Stokes
W. Royal Stokes was editor of Jazz Notes, the quarterly journal of the Jazz Journalists Association, from 1992 to 2001 and has been editor of JazzTimes and the Washington Post's jazz critic. He is the author of The Jazz Scene: An Informal History from New Orleans to 1990 (Oxford University Press, 1991), Swing Era New York: The Jazz Photographs of Charles Peterson (Temple University Press, 1994), Living the Jazz Life: Conversations with Forty Musicians about Their Careers in Jazz (Oxford University Press, 2000), and Growing Up With Jazz: Twenty-Four Musicians Talk About Their Lives and Careers (Oxford University Press, 2005). He is currently at work on a memoir and his fourth collection of profiles of jazz and blues musicians.


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